So Much For May Day

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Yves here. Last week, I chided American labor for walking away from the American-born May Day commemoration as apparently too Commie/Rooskie, and substituting a bloodless and overly-wordy “workers Memorial Day”.

The apparent Russia/international Socialist aversion looks even more spineless in light of the Russians moving away from May Day as a formal holiday (although Barkley Rosser indicates it’s still effectively observed).

By Barkley Rosser, Professor of Economics at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Originally published at EconoSpeak

Today is May Day. An ancient point of the Gaelic calendar marking spring, it was long marked by pagan fertility celebrations and rites, dancing around May poles and the like, with many variations on this in different countries. The day became associated with the worker’s movement in 1886 when in Chicago a movement for the 8-hour work day involved many demonstrations and strikes and ultimately a riot in Haymarket Square in Chicago that culminated in a bombing and a massacre (with both police and workers killed), followed by trials and executions of various anarchists and activists. The actual date if the massacre was on May 4, but May1 became associated with the event, and it spread to become the leading International Worker’s Day, despite competition from rivals such as Labor Day in September in the US.  Ironically both of them were started by socialists and in the US, but somehow in the US Labor Day came to be favored by more conservative interests and was made the legal holiday, with May Day the day celebrated by socialists in other parts of the world.

In the former Soviet Union May Day was one of the major holidays of the year, one of three on which there were major parades and activities in Red Square in Moscow during the period of rule by the Communist Party, the others being November 7 to celebrate the Great October Socialist Revolution (it was October 25 in the old Julian calendar, still followed by the Russian Orthodox Church), and May 9, Victory Day in memory of the victory of Germany in World War II.  Of course, Victory Day, following over a week of vacations following May 1, featured parading displays of military people and equipment, which also would show up, along with lots of party officials on November 7. However, perhaps recalling its old pagan celebratory past, the May Day celebrations in Red Square features athletes and youth groups.  It was an uplifting celebration, more of a party.

Well, since the end of the Soviet Union things have changed. Victory Day continues to be celebrated, with indeed Vladimir Putin playing it up in recent years, making a bigger and bigger deal of it in his appeal to a militaristic nationalism, with ever larger military parades.  As for November 7, in 2005 it was removed as a holiday, but November 4 was recognized as Unity Day, which has sort of replaced November 7, although without Red Square celebrations. It was in fact a pre-Soviet holiday that celebrated a victory of the Poles and Lithuanians in 1612.

But May Day was also dropped as a holiday, although people still basically take off work from it until the still hugely celebrated May 9 Victory Day.  This year, Sunday May 2 happens to be the Russian Orthodox Easter, given by the still followed Julian calendar.  And also this year Putin has been making a big deal about it, getting lots of publicity for going to church and hanging around with its leaders, presumably to distract people from the uprisings and opposition to his rule that have been happening.  But the old May Day is gone in Russia, only quietly noticed by the remnant Communist Party..

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  1. vlade

    May Day is still a holiday in most of the Europe I believe, although here in the CZ no-one misses the mandatory mass “we love the communist party and the Soviet Union!” marches. well, no one who had to go to them when more than about 10 years old.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      I went for a woodland walk yesterday to collect wild garlic with a Vietnamese born friend and she was asking me why this weekend was a holiday. I pointed out that it was supposedly a workers day and she suddenly remembered what a big deal it was growing up in Vietnam, except that it was always May 1st.

      In Ireland though, the left wing association was always very minor, it had much more to do with Bealtine, the traditional pagan day marking the beginning of summer.

  2. upstater

    In the UK May Day is known as the “Early Bank Holiday”. They apparently celebrate all the good things the banks have done and honor them twice during May. Next celebration bank celebration is May 31, the “Spring Bank Holiday”. At least the Brits are honest about what is sacred. Thank God and the Queen for the banks!

  3. Rod

    In lieu of the 51st anniversary of KSU Massacre tomorrow, I was struck by this, unknown to me,
    Bit of Bitter Irony:

    The actual date if the massacre was on May 4, but May1 became associated with the event,

    Lots of State Legislation currently proposed is aimed at curtailing and restrict the Right to Public Protest in mass and in the street.

    1. John Zelnicker

      Rod – Just a quibble, it’s the 50th anniversary of the Kent State shootings. I was on the student newspaper at the time and the event is burned into my memory.

  4. Ook

    It is not a holiday in the US because of reactionary politics (President Cleveland designated Labor Day in September partly out of fear of agitation, in 1894). The Second International (in Paris, not Russia) declared it a holiday in 1889.

    “Spring and Labor Day” is an official national holiday in Russia, not just a period where people take time off work.

    And I’m still trying to work out the connection between Labor Day and Easter celebrations in the last paragraph. Putin celebrates Easter in the same fashion every year, and it isn’t related to Spring and Labor Day celebrations (which will go back to May 1 next year).

  5. Matthew G. Saroff

    International Mayday celebrations commemorate the Haymarket protests/general strike starting May 1, 1886 in CHICAGO.

    During these protests, someone (no one knows who) threw a bomb and killed some officers, and the organizers of the rally were convicted and executed in what is considered to be the most bullsh%$ trial in the history of Chicago.

    Inspired by the American movement for a shorter workday, socialists and unionists around the world began celebrating May 1, or “May Day,” as an international workers’ holiday. In the twentieth century, the Soviet Union and other Communist countries officially adopted it. The Haymarket tragedy is remembered throughout the world in speeches, murals, and monuments. American observance was strongest in the decade before World War I. During the Cold War, many Americans saw May Day as a Communist holiday, and President Eisenhower proclaimed May 1 as “Loyalty Day” in 1955. Interest in Haymarket revived somewhat in the 1980s.

  6. Jeff N

    May Day? Sounds familiar. But Biden (and many presidents before him) said May 1 is “Loyalty Day”

  7. Alice X

    The actual date if the massacre was on May 4, but May1 became associated with the event, and it spread to become the leading International Worker’s Day, despite competition from rivals such as Labor Day in September in the US. Ironically both of them were started by socialists and in the US, but somehow in the US Labor Day came to be favored by more conservative interests and was made the legal holiday, with May Day the day celebrated by socialists in other parts of the world.

    This is very muddied wording. As mentioned in another comment, in 1889, May 1 was declared Labor Day in one of the first acts of the Second International.

    In 1894, Grover Cleveland sought to deflect attention from that, the original Chicago event and the then just busted enormous, tragic Pullman strike, six days after which signing the law making a US Labor Day in September. A decent piece at Jacobin:

  8. ckimball

    As a child I was taken to Golden Gate Park to view a field of children dancing round Maypoles weaving colored ribbons (I’m a little foggy on this part). There was a
    parade celebrating the crowning of the child queen of the May. In the 1940s.
    It was spell binding.

  9. Keith Newman

    I still remember walking down les Grands Boulevards in Paris in the May Day march along with several hundred thousand other people singing l’Internationale. It was a different time. There are no significant left parties in the US (the DSA is a centrist party that could only be called “socialist” in the US) and none in Canada anymore, except maybe Quebec solidaire. Are there any in Europe? None I know of in the UK, perhaps Melancon’s party in France. Others? I don’t know but none stands out…

    1. Sue inSoCal

      Keith Newman, your phrasing brought back a memory. (Nothing sociological or political!) I haven’t heard it in years. My immigrant mother would say (if anyone got too full of themselves) “who do you think you are? Queen of the May?” I had no clue as a child what that meant.

  10. Alex Cox

    Die Linke in Germany, and Podemos in Spain? There’s a good article by Diane Johnstone in today’s Consortiumnews about the German Greens’ move to the right.

    There are also two new parties in Britain: Alba in Scotland and the Northern Independence Party, but I’m not sure how left they are.

  11. Alice X

    The Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), Socialist Alternative and the Socialist Equality Party (SEP), to name three. I would go to the SEP’s rallies in Michigan near me in 2016. There would be a dozen people there. When I asked, they said the PSL was Stalinist, by which I took them to mean they weren’t Trotskyites. Niles Niemuth described the SEP as the Bolsheviks. I voted for Gloria La Riva anyway.

  12. Keith Newman

    @Sue: I was in Paris for May Day in the mid-1980s. There was a big union presence and of course political parties, even pretty centrist ones.
    @Alex: Ah, yes, Die Linke. I too have read about how the German Greens have shifted pretty far right. Sad really given where they started from. Podemos, didn’t I see something about a rightward shift there? Not sure though.Thanks for the reference to Diane Johnstone. I’ll read it. Bill Mitchell has pointed out how in Australia the greens are neo-liberal. My own experience with enviro groups is that they are not very radical at all.
    @Alice: Well, I was thinking of groups with significant popular support. Quebec solidaire got 15% of the vote in the last Quebec election and I would call that significant.
    It’s funny because when I became politically active in the early 1970s I considered myself centre-left, maybe socialist-libertarian. I found the Trotskyists and similar groups very irritating because they were very fringe but took up a lot of time at political meetings and turned people off with their slogans.
    My politics haven’t changed very much over the years but the world around me has. Centre-left 50 years ago is very left today.

    1. Alice X

      Yes, I did understand your use of significant. Nader in 2000 received 2,882,955 votes, or 2.74 percent of the popular vote, his best showing but still well under the 5% needed for the Greens to qualify for Federal matching funds in the next election. It’s the duopoly!

  13. Russophile

    The last paragraph of this article is completely wrong. Labor Day (May 1) and Victory Day (May 9) are still both official holidays. Russians in fact refer to them as the “May Holidays” (“майские праздники”) and often take off all the days in between the two for vacation. It may not have the pomp and circumstance it once had but Labor Day has definitely not been dropped. Such a glaring error doesn’t make me feel confident in the author.

  14. John Anthony La Pietra

    The small city where I live — Marshall, Michigan — has two of the state’s 15 American Labor Landmarks. Both locations are associated with the founding of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers here in 1863.

    I’ve been holding commemorative walks between the two sites on or around the US’s Labor Day for almost 20 years now — first on my own, more recently with my Green party local. The last several years we’ve also been walking on or around International Labor Day. Here’s a link to last Saturday’s event.

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